“The People should not be afraid of their government, the government should be afraid of its people” – V to Evie. V for Vendetta
Remember remember the Fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
The Fifth of November is a night perfect for storytelling. A night where a story can fulfil multiple roles. Where we “celebrate” (and I use that word advisedly) an event that is both historic and mythic in proportion. A night for scapegoats, a night for religious sectarianism, a night for unity, a night of triumph for authority, a night for rebellion. This night, so multi-faceted that it can simultaneously accommodate opposing views is one that is utterly English in scope, and yet deep in the psyche of all humanity.
The essential ‘need’ for “the scapegoat” in maintaining the fabric of community (whether for good or ill) is one which feeds on the darkest parts of our nature. And poor Guido Fawkes fits the bill perfectly. In a time when religious wars were tearing apart our cousins across the water on mainland Europe, Fawkes stepped into the limelight and was perfect fodder for the protestant mythmakers. Here was a man willing to murder not only his king, but to destroy parliament (a body until now managed intelligently by even the worst of the Tudors – the Stuarts would be another matter however). Here was a figure into which all the invective of the age could be poured – the complexity of the situation glossed over, the nuance danced around, the crimes of king and parliament made small in comparison. And this is how scapegoats through the ages have been held up as a distraction, like a magician’s assistant drawing the attention away from the real action; held up as a focus of anger, dissatisfaction; as the reason for failure.
Oh and it’s powerful – so powerful that millions of 21st Century Britons partake in the vestiges of a ritual killing that our BC ancestors would still recognise. So powerful that the victors of any conflict can turn heroes into villains, and vice-versa. So powerful that when the image and persona of scapegoat is fully accepted by the scapegoat himself, it can be used to subvert the intent – it can be used to wake us up instead of putting us to sleep as those in power have used it so often before.
And that’s where “V” enters our 5th of November story. Where he appropriates the idea of the scapegoat; where he both subverts and inverts the idea of treason; where he demonstrates perfectly the truth that the victors write history and choose who the heroes are going to be. But in death as the scapegoat, He becomes both victor and Hero – while at the same time allowing the “people” to become both the victors and Heroes. And some folk are surprised when I blub at the end of “V for Vendetta”!
My big confession when it comes to V for Vendetta is that I haven’t read the Graphic novel (though I have flicked through it and read portions of it… perhaps I need to remedy this). My secondary confession is that the film leaves me feeling rather ambivalent. This is largely because it’s both a celebration of and a repudiation of violence. On the one hand, the violence is balletic, beautiful, artistic. That the explosions at the beginning and end of the film are set to music (and a great piece of music – you have to have 1812 with explosions to be honest) is no mistake – it’s an argument that the explosions themselves are art, that the buildings and night sky are V’s canvas displaying his point – but with destruction. As a pacifist I view all violence as unnecessary, as ugly and as essentially evil – and yet even I am drawn in by the way the film shows V’s violence as something necessary.
That for real change to happen there must be violent destruction is an idea that has filled humanity’s psyche for millennia. The question around using violence to defend self or a vulnerable other is one that bubbles under the surface of our “refined” society. Coupled with this is the idea of retributive violence, committed either by the individual or by society itself (The communal burning of the Guy/scapegoat is a ritual representation of this – think about that as you attend your bonfire this year).
V himself seems to see his violence as essential to push the change but also that it disqualifies him from inheriting the change. He sees himself and the “violence inherent in the system” (Monty Python Shout-out) as the past and Evie (as the representative of the people he’s trying to wake up) as the future. What underlies the seeming glorification of violence in the way it’s presented by the filmmakers is the quiet idea that the “normal” every day folk in the story are waking up to a rejection of violence. And it’s not just violence they might be rejecting, but also the politics of fear, the politics of control, the politics of “reduction of variation”. But would this revolution of choice, of peace, of diversity even be possible without the deathly dance and explosions that potentially birthed it?
This story, more than anything is about questions. It encourages us to ask the question about whether violence is essential, about whether the rejection of violence is possible, about where the blame for violence lies (V squarely lays the blame on his “creators” – does he accept any responsibility himself? I don’t recall him doing so). And this is one of the strengths of certain types of story, this one included. Because I don’t know the answer for myself. I like to say I’m a pacifist, but when push came to shove, if the life of someone I loved was at stake, would I rip my own arm off to beat their assailant to death? I really don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s important to ask the question, it’s important to discuss the answers, but just as important to accept that not all questions have definitive answers.
Happy Guy Fawkes Night.